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Reviews

Life

Steve Turner

Keith Richards
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 608pp, ISBN: 9780297854395

RLife(KR).jpg Prince Rupert Loewenstein, for many years the Rolling Stones' financial advisor, made one of the most accurate and insightful assessments of the social impact of the group in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones. He said, 'Rock music was a symptom of a new secular evangelisation, where the prohibitions of the Decalogue were subordinated to the gospel of fulfilment of the individual's desires. The Rolling Stones' enormous popular success is a tribute to their ability to capture this taste and to gratify its expectations'. Loewenstein, by the way, wasn't complaining. He thought this was an admirable achievement.

More than any other member of the Rolling Stones Keith Richards has embodied the lifestyle associated with the group. Brian Jones died too early and Ronnie Woods arrived too late. Mick Jagger was too health and fashion conscious, Charlie Watts too much of a family man and Bill Wyman too intent on writing up his diaries and keeping his receipts to throw themselves unconditionally into the maelstrom.

Life, Keith Richards' autobiography, goes some way towards showing why this guitarist from Dartford, dedicated his life to the gospel of individual desire. Early on he says 'We never had the fear of God in our family'. It wasn't that they they were violently opposed to Christianity ('Nobody minded what Christ said') but they were suspicious of vicars and had no time for religion. 'We never went to church,' he says, 'never even knew where it was'. They fostered what he calls 'a kind of irreverence and nonconformity'. Infidelity and drunkenness and the like were not unknown, and two of his grandfather's sisters were prostitutes.

And yet he joined the school choir and sang before the Queen at Westminster Abbey in the early 1950s. He dates his rebelliousness to the age of 13 when his voice broke and he lost his choir gig. He'd missed lessons for it and now he had to drop back a year to catch up. 'I was so mad, I had a burning desire for revenge,' he writes. 'I had reason then to bring down this country and everything it stood for.'

When I first read this I thought he must be joking, but he isn't. He says the incident still rankles and the fire still hasn't gone out. 'That's when I started looking at the world in a different way, not their way any more.' This was why he started wearing tight jeans and growing his hair long - 'Anything to annoy them.'

This perhaps explains why his anti-authoritarianism lacks any idealism beyond his own satisfaction. He has no vision of a better society, just a world where no one interferes with his personal pursuit of pleasure. So he tends to lash out at anyone with a badge, describing the poor toll collectors at the entrance to the Dartford tunnel as 'bullies' in uniforms.

Being a natural rebel, he has always identified with lawbreakers. Since first touring the USA with the Stones he has sought out the dark side of whatever town he's in, thrilling to the danger and the clash with straight white society. He describes his favoured accomplices as 'absolute madmen', adding 'All of my close friends have been jailbirds at one time or another.'

His legendary narcotic habits, which are comprehensively covered in the book, helped bestow on him the outsider status he had always longed for. Illegal substances gave him a cause worth (almost) dying for. It not only irked the establishment but meant that he was literally an outlaw rather than just playing at being one. A lot of his adventures were undertaken in the acquiring, smuggling, sharing, and taking of drugs.

Journalists have frequently described Keith as 'Byronic' and it's true that the Romantic poets set down the template he adheres to. Yet the Stones didn't set out with the intention of sparking revolutions or bringing Romanticism to the masses. Keith's passion for his music is undeniable. Some of the best bits of the book come when he details how his greatest songs were written, mentions the artists to whom he's most indebted and explains how he developed his instantly recognisable guitar sound. Creating memorable riffs and touching hearts has always been the primary concern. Stoking controversy and altering attitudes was a by-product. 'There was no great universal "We want to change society"; we just knew that things were changing…. And we thought, "How can we run rampant?"'

The book is a rollicking read and will be indispensable for anyone trying to understand the cultural shift of the 1960s. But I feel conflicted in my opinions of Keith Richards. On one one hand I have been rewarded by his music, and respect his integrity. He's compellingly straightforward, refreshingly challenges assumptions and places a great value on being honest with himself and his audience. The Rolling Stones always opposed false glamour, cheap sentiment and redundant conventions. They were part of a movement that wanted to recover the vitality of life that was suffocated by dull formality and appearances that needed to be kept up.

On the other hand I see him as someone not only headed down the broad road to Destruction but happy to extol the virtues of doing so. He may now appear as a loveable old rogue yet he hasn't only challenged petty authority but the Decalogue and all the good rules inspired by it. He surely has to bear some responsibility for the disrepute into which values such as modesty, accountability, purity and self control have fallen.

Some of his behaviour is not just a finger up to The Man but an outrage against what it means to be fully human. He challenges his own bodily limitations as if they too are bullies threatening to curtail his enjoyment. Almost everyone close to him dies, becomes addicted to drugs, or both. His second son, Tara, passes away inexplicably as a baby and although he says the incident was 'painful' he casually adds, 'Never knew the son of a bitch, or barely'. His long term lover Anita Pallenberg takes up with a teenage boy who blows his brains out with a gun in the Richards' house and all Keith can say of him is that he was 'an absolute prick'.

Those who admire Keith seem to do so because not only has he lived on his own terms but is still around to tell the story. Not only is he alive but he has a beautiful wife, two daughters, a property portfolio, and the applause of the world ringing in his ears. Tony Blair tells him he's 'one of my heroes'. All the bad mojo, as Keith might call it, has fallen on his sidekicks, retainers and imitators, not on him. The road of excess may not have led to Blake's 'palace of wisdom' but it has at least lead to an expensive pile in rural Connecticut where he currently lives 'a gentleman's life'.

I'm surprised that his ghost writer, James Fox, didn't probe him about the demonic imagery that the Rolling Stones happily toyed with both visually and lyrically in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In a 1971 interview Keith admitted to the fascination ('It's something everybody ought to explore.') and said that some black magicians thought that the band were 'unknown agents of Lucifer.' I would also have been curious to know how this old rebel found love and contentment with the daughter of apparently devout Lutheran family (one of his brothers-on-law is a pastor).

Discussing his song 'Thief in the Night' he says 'I got the title from the Bible, which I read quite often.' I couldn't help wondering which bits he reads, and what he comes away thinking.

Steve Turner